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On the Hermeneutics of the Light Verse of the Qur’an

Mulla Sadra Shirazi (Sadr al-Din) was born in the latter half of the 16th century AD.  Despite some persecution, he studied philosophy (Hikma) and gnosis (Irfan) extensively and became well known for his unique commentaries (Tafsir) of the Qur’an, the sum of which remain highly regarded and studied today. On the Hermeneutics of the Light Verse of the Qur’an was completed in 1030/1620, and is related to the Qur’anic revelation.

“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the similitude of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp; the lamp is in a glass; the glass is like a glittering star kindled from a blessed tree, an olive that is neither of the Orient nor of the Occident – the oil of which would almost give light even though fire had not touched it: light upon light!  God guides to His light the one who wills to be guided; and God offers similitudes to human beings since God has full knowledge of all things.” (24:35)

According to Sadra, there are exoteric and esoteric levels of the Qur’an and some verses are explicit and others are equivocal in nature. In his Asfar, he says: “The Qur’an, like a man, has inner and outer aspects. Each of them has manifest and hidden meanings. The hidden has another hidden meaning and so on until the ultimate limit, which is known only to God, for taking a thing back to its origin of its ultimate meaning is known to God alone.” He criticizes Qur’an commentary methodology that focuses on lexical and literal meaning alone, such as that by the Hanbalis – an approach he claimed showed mental weakness and limitation, i.e. “deficiency in their understanding to perceive the intention of the Qur’an and the mysteries of the verses”. He also rejects any commentary which invalidates the literal meaning, for he regards the literal meaning as valid, albeit extremely shallow, cutting out the realization of truths and deeper meanings of the Scripture. Similarly, he deplores recitation without reflection as worthless, quoting Imam Ali (peace be upon him): “There is no good in any worship if there is no understanding of the intention behind it, and no good in the recitation of the Qur’an without reflection on it.”

A translation of this commentary has been written by Latimah-Parvin Peerwani and published by ICAS Press, which is the publisher of the Islamic College (London) that undertakes the translation and publication of important scholarly works as well as the quarterly Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies, and makes them available for general consumption through their online store. The introduction by the translator is superb in its own right, providing a solid background into the history and thinking behind Mulla Sadra’s work that is necessary to understand the commentary. The translation also appears to be very precise to the original Arabic, and footnotes, glossary, and bibliography are all excellent and not just filler by any means. The academic vocabulary the translator uses is accurate and probably appropriate for the level of this undertaking, but provides an obstacle for readers lacking the particular jargon of the philosophical field, particularly because Peerwani does not seem to waver from extensive use of jargonistic terminology for translating certain Arabic phrases that recur frequently. Thus, one must wade through excessive use of phrases containing words such as “philology, theosophy, ontology, quiddity, genus, noetic, ipseity, theosophy, concomitants, loci, tenebrous, concupiscent, peripatetic, existents,” and so on, as well as usage of terms like “accidental” that have meaning peculiar to the field of study. Ponderous turns of phrase such as, “Then the light from it would not fall on a thing from the air of the house, its walls and its roof because of the absence of a relation with the preponderance of its nonexistence, the nonexistence of priority, and the impossibility of the preponderance without a preponderator,” can at times, at least for this reader, be difficult to decipher.

However, when one considers the words of Mulla Sadra in his conclusion, “So make stable their seeds in the earth of your heart even though they may be above your level [of perception]. It is up to you and to them to taste the meanings of these words through purified souls, clear minds, cleansed hearts and attentive ears,” one is reminded of the necessity for us to read, study, and reflect in order to be guided, and not to be limited to worldly distractions and easy entertainment. Indeed, this work is highly worthy of reading, study, and reflection. This reader wholeheartedly concurs with the exhortation of Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini recently published at Islamic Insights that reading and reflecting upon books, paramount of which are those that provide religious knowledge, is an essential trait in children and adults who would be rightly guided and avoid the poor habits and ignorance of the world. An expansive vocabulary or advanced topic in a book should not block one from its study – the only way to approach knowledge is to approach it.

Returning to the subject of the book, the commentary of the Light verse reveals many possible levels of meaning of the verse in four parts. This verse is particularly suggestive of underlying symbology, and Sadra examines part by part what is represented by Light, niche, lamp, glass, olive tree, and so on. He refers to previous commentaries extensively, rejecting some and agreeing with others, and also provides what he feels was unveiled to him about the matters at hand. He shows meaning of this verse that gives surprising insight into the nature and status of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny), and means of knowing or approaching God, as well as the nature and levels of reality and existence. His commentary is not at all limited to meanings of words, but discusses at length their relation to the sensory world, imaginal world, and intellectual/spiritual world of Man. About these realities and seeking God, he eloquently writes, “There is another similitude, clearer than the former, given by the people of reflection and imagination: the vision of the moon in the water is something, and seeing the face of the moon on the night of the full moon is another thing; but whoever sees the face of the moon in the water has seen it except that he sees it with the veil of his estimation. Likewise the heart of the gnostic is like the mirror in which the mystery of God is seen, as a certain [gnostic] said: ‘The similitude of the heart is like the mirror, when a man looks into it his Lord self-manifests Himself.'”

The seekers of God or Truth or Reality, he claims, can see it only through it, and this is only possible by the elimination of the ego. He claims that the existence of one’s ego is a sin like no other, “For as long as the ego of the wayfarer and its caprice have not vanished then they are the object of worship, the root of every worship and love for other than God…” But most people fall victim to this caprice, which is hypocrisy: “The believer takes his religion from God, the hypocrite selects an opinion and takes his religion from it.”

To further belabor the unveiling of mysteries that Mulla Sadra Shirazi delivers in this work would neither do them justice nor be in accordance with the instructions of the scholar himself. The book is available for purchase directly from ICAS Press, as well as other distributors such as the al-Khoei Center, or Amazon.com.

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2 comments

  1. Salaam… What are the prerequisite philosophy books which one is supposed to have studied in order to understand this text properly? That is an important factor to consider when approaching this type of knowledge, right? We don’t want to relay Mulla Sadra’s thoughts inaccurately…or in a way which may be misunderstood and misinterpreted…

  2. I don’t know that I personally have a list of philosophy books to recommend – the main issue seems to be vocabulary. If you are willing to carefully and patiently use a dictionary and the glossary in the book, etc., I think you should give it a try!

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